Linguistic Pedantry

I suspect that “being good at languages” and linguistic pedantry must be fairly firmly linked, because most of the people I know who enjoy studying languages other than their own also seem to find misuse of their own language annoying.  I’m a big fan of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation and belong to the Facebook group “The Panda Says No” and there are a number of things in both written and spoken English that make me cringe.

My current least favourite is the tendency of people in the circles in which I move to see hoi polloi as a synonym for “the elite”!!  As in “there I was, sitting at the main table with the hoi polloi”.  Yeah.  Right.  Unfortunately, it never seems to be said in circumstances where I can reasonably explain to the speaker (and hearers) that hoi polloi is Greek for “the citizens” so the kindest translation is “the people” and it is more usually taken to mean “the rabble” or “the great unwashed”.

While I am prepared to agree with The Chicago Manual of Style and Meriam Webster’s dictionary that it probably does need a “the” in front of it in English, despite the technical tautology, I cringe and shudder whenever I hear a usage that is so clearly wrong in meaning.  Why do people have to use words they clearly don’t understand????

And on a related note, the Sydney Morning Herald has a section called Column 8, in which readers write short pieces about odd things that catch their attention and often bemoan ecentric uses of language.  One of their current topics is the use of “an” rather than “a” in front of words beginning with “h” – you will need to scroll down a little. I have been known to say “an hotel” occasionally and also “an historic even”, but never “an happy new year” nor “an hat”. My understanding is that “an” goes with words borrowed from French where the “h” is not pronounced. Je pense que je suis un peu pédant. 🙂

I’d love to hear readers’ pet linguistic peeves.

5 thoughts on “Linguistic Pedantry

  1. There is a tendency to use “an” before word beginning with a hard ‘h’ sound when the first syllable of the word is unstressed. That’s “an hat” and “an happy” sound bad, but “an historical” and even “an hotel” sound somewhat more acceptable.

  2. Unless its a phrasal verb, sentences ending with a preposition generally make me cringe with horror. Its kind of like scratching fingernails across a blackboard.

    Have you read David Crystal’s response to Truss’s book The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left? If anything its thought provoking.

  3. My grandmother uses hoi polloi to refer to the elite. I have tried to correct her, telling her it means “the many,” i.e. the masses, but alas I fear it is difficult to change the habits of someone in her 90s.

  4. Thanks for your comments. WordPress kept throwing me out every time I tried to respond until today.

    Mike, no I haven’t read Crystal’s book, but will look out for it. I also dislike sentences ending with a preposition, although I suspect I have been guilty of producing some in speech. Things like “I’ll ring you when I get back from the meeting to which I’m going” sound a little pretentious in general conversation. 🙂

    Brian, obviously this misuse of hoi polloi isn’t recent.

    Stephen, I suspect that the “an hotel” thing might be more British/Antipodean than North American, anyway.

    Tim – clearly your French is more fluent than mine. Had to look up two words in a dictionary. Serves me right. I should probably stick to German when I write in a language other than English. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s